For Dario Argento Filmmaking is A Family Business

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a horror convention that Dario Argento was attending. The following is a repost based on questions that I and a friend of mine were able to ask.

A friend of mine asked Dario Argento during a Q & A session at this year’s Monster-Mania on March 13th if he found it challenging to work with family. His answer was quite insightful and rather great.

He said it’s like a “bottega nascimentale,” which is roughly translated as a family business. He said it’s easy his grandfather was a distributor his father and brother are producers. Now his daughter Asia is a actor and director. He called it the “Italian style” and it is truly the only way he knows how to work and it’s worked well for him.

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Rewind Review- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used, on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

With reports already abound that the writers are and have been crafting a sequel since before the premiere the makers of Diary of a Wimpy Kid seemed like they would be getting off on the wrong foot by immediately violating one of my recommended cinematic resolutions (A piece I wrote at the start of that year urged studios to wait on sequel announcements). This is not the case, however, as for the most part there are few missteps and many, many positives in this funny family film that really is likely to please the whole family.

The first thing this film does right was to not fall into the in-and-out no one gets hurt motto of family-friendly filmmaking, which means they were unafraid of a slower pace which feels longer than it is and tells a lot of story. Even better is that you don’t really feel it at all because there’s plenty story there and no filler.

What allows this film to so easily tackle the extra running time is not only the fact that it takes a diary approach, starting just before the first day of school in September and going until the end of the year but also that employs a narrator, the protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), that not only moves the story along but at times talks to the camera directly, which is to this day a hard feat to pull of but it’s well done here.

This is the kind of film that doesn’t work at all unless its young lead is spot on in such a way that you not only identify with his situation but at times feel for it and this accomplished with deft and ease by Zachary Gordon. If Greg Heffly is misplayed at all, considering the story elements, he is not a sympathetic character but he adds to it a naive sure-headedness that make him readily identifiable to most audience members. Similarly, Robert Capron as Rowley easily becomes either like we were at that age, unwilling to grow up and unashamedly himself, or just like someone we knew- together they make this movie happen.

Kudos are also in store to director Thor Freudenthal not only for a second consecutive well-handled and non-condescending family film (Hotel for Dogs) but also for allowing some reality into the equation when dealing with Junior High School. Few films ever, whether through storyline or casting extras older, realistically depict the chasm in maturity that exists not just amongst kids at the same grade-level but between the 6th and 8th grade- you may never feel that extraordinarily short again as you do that year and this film finally addresses that other realities that are typically glossed over by other projects.

Another positive is the realism of the cheese metaphor. In the tale there is a piece of cheese stuck to the blacktop of the playground and it mysteriously never gets moved and it develops this aura. Stories develop and those who touch it are cursed. The flashback sequence describing the history of the cheese is a great subplot and also when it becomes crucial at the end as it is a great metaphor for the triviality and randomness about what is perceived as good and bad by peers in school. It is truly a wonderful touch.

The only slight issues this film suffers from is in the two-pronged rift that occurs between the two friends, it’s not so much that the rift happens because you kind of see it coming but it’s how they happen. First, there is a disagreement when Greg and Rowley are trying to collaborate on a comic strip for a school competition the reason it’s sort of an issue is a matter of personal preference. Basically, it’s an argument between Greg and Rowley where the film seems to want you to take Rowley’s side but in this viewer’s opinion Greg was right on that one- Rowley’s strip is funny in context of the film but taken out of the film Greg’s is better (Note: on re-views Rowley’s has become funnier in its un-funniness and the sequel deals with the joke better). Where Greg isn’t right is when he betrays his friend, of course, and here is where the moral of the film will come in. However, their rift gets prolonged because of how Greg handles his mistake after the fact, lesson learned ultimately but movie slightly lessened due to it- not to say that Rowley should’ve immediately forgiven it, but it was a sorry apology attempt.

Another way in which this film excels, however, is that the secondary characters do show some reality even if they are not as well-sketched as the leads. There is the Gym teacher showing favoritism in a not over-the-top way to his better athletes. Then there’s Angie (Chloe Moretz) who sits on the sidelines most of the time because she realizes how futile being popular and accepted at this level is if you’re not you. Even Greg’s parents just in how they react to one situation, Greg’s fight with a girl during The Wizard of Oz, is real and happens. Mom is disappointed and can’t even talk to him and dad says to Greg “I thought she deserved it.” Then there’s Greg’s older brother Roderick who never changes and always treats Greg poorly but is a proponent of a theory many know well “Just blend in.”

Ultimately, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a very enjoyable, insightful, thoughtful and funny film about an under-represted (in a realistic fashion) subset of the population on film.

8/10

Book Review- The Wimpy Kid Movie Diary

You never know what you’re going to get when you purchase a book that ties into the release of a film that purports to be a diary or some other kind of making of chronicle. Some I flip through are quite flimsy (like alleged shooting scripts with too many photos and goofy formatting), some are quite great (like the Hugo companion). Usually, the book being written by the author of the adapted book is a good indicator.

Thus, what surprised me most about Jeff Kinney’s book about The Diary of a Wimpy Kid wasn’t that I liked it (though I have not read the books, only saw the films) but how detailed it is, yet also accessible. Kinney describes much of the filmmaking process through all three phases of production simply yet precisely. However, aside from tricks of the trade, he also makes the journey personal discussing both his journey with the character and the books and then the films. He goes on to include a bit about the affinity and coincidences in chronology that exist between Gregg Heffley and Zachary Gordon, the actor who plays the role.

Here again you also have another author discuss why changes were made to the narrative when transcribing it to the screen and being fully in support of them. However, Kinney has perhaps the simplest, most bulletproof fanboy block of them all “If everything that happened in the book happened in the movie why would you want to see it?” He also talks about the difficulty in casting Gregg because he recognized that the character had to start as severely flawed but still likable and I believe that balance was struck.

Aside from the specifics of the productions, which prove that movie-making is always hard work (as if that needed proving) I really liked getting a glimpse into the creative process, which is shown not just on Kinney’s part but the first film’s director and the young cast (Gordon and Robert Capron wrote essays as their characters, which are dead on). Aside from the insight that illustrate how the film came into being I think this really is a great book for kids. If they already like the series and are interested in seeing how movies are made you won’t find the elements of production explained more directly, plus discussing concepts in conjunction with a film they’ve seen make it easier to learn.

This is a quick, enjoyable read that is worth seeking out for fans of the series or if you’re just looking to get your feet wet learning the basics of filmmaking. The edition I read had some Rodrick Rules content added but it wasn’t a significant amount so I wouldn’t hold out for a second update and just get it now if you’re interested.

Thankful for World Cinema- Night & Fog

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Night & Fog

Night & Fog (Argos Films)

It is virtually impossible to ever come close to fully grasping the totality of the horror of the holocaust. If anything were to ever come close it’s Night & Fog. Never has the greatest calamity of the 20th Century been handled so precisely.

Many people are down on voice over narration but it’s part of the nature of the beast in a documentary and here, in this film, you have some of the greatest narration ever written by Jean Cayrol, a man who was himself a concentration camp survivor.

Not only does this film uniquely, at the time, mix color and black and white images but also uses the abandoned structures of the camps to haunt the film.

There is no question that this film is the apex of documentary filmmaking. It tried to take a massive subject and condense into something easy to understand. It allows you to reflect on things you see and learn but tries to bring as much of what transpired out as it can.

It also in turn becomes an important historical document. It is a masterpiece in as much as it achieves perfection in its form. If it was a feature length documentary it may not have this kind of impact.
 
It is an eye-opening and jarring account of the atrocities of the second World War that should be required viewing for all.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween- It! The Terror from Beyond Space

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if the film Alien was made in the 1950s well then It! The Terror from Beyond Space is for you. When you boil it down the premise is the same: an alien being is on a spacecraft and is attacking the crew. The treatment is different, however, but no less compelling.

Firstly, it bears mentioning that being made in the 1950s all the sci-fi trappings of the age are there to an extent but it is all very well done. Most of the would-be effects are shot practically and look pretty darn impressive from the planet to the launch to the spacewalk. The creature is also another great example of filmmaking at the time and is a really effective suit.

The claustrophobic environment of the tale is really what makes it excel. What kicks it off though is that this is a rescue mission and one man is being transported back to Washington to a face a court martial as he is suspected of murder and the stories of a monster are dismissed. This is a great dramatic device to kickstart the tale.

It also introduces a frame to the tale as the film starts and ends with a press conference first stating the mission of the newly launched ship and then announcing the findings the crew reported and placing an appropriate coda on the film.

Another interesting technique is that like in Jaws there are sparing glimpses of the creature at first. Only seeing its feet or the damage it left behind or hearing it down below the main level. It allows for the imagination to actively engage in the tale.

Once all the crew members believe there is a creature you almost always hear it or know where it is giving this creature near omnipresence in the tale which is rare.

The conclusion of this tale is also very satisfying not only in the clever manner in which the creature is defeated but also with the news conference coda which allows for one last scare in the film as only could be done in the 1950s. It is definitely worth viewing.

8/10

Review- Secretariat

Diane Lane in Secretariat (Disney)

Secretariat is now available to stream from Netflix

Perhaps what impresses most about Secretariat isn’t necessarily that it might be Disney’s strongest sports-themed effort since 1992 and The Mighty Ducks but the fact that it’s a overdog story in the guise of an underdog story. Meaning that if the film was really only dealing with the horse itself it would’ve been chronicling one of the most dominant performers and biggest champions in all of sports. That’s great when you’re watching horse racing on Saturday afternoon but it’s hardly the stuff of great drama.

The underdog element comes in the the form of the horse’s owner Penny Tweedy played by Diane Lane. She was new to the sport and not as knowledgeable as some but she knew her horse and trusted her gut. In the film we see her try to balance her family in Colorado and the farm and her horse in Virginia- in making it about her the dramatic element is added in skillfully.

When if you think about it makes this ludicrously good filmmaking at times because it makes a foregone conclusion riveting. A blowout no less. It’s quite something and furthermore last year (2009 as of this writing) in the Triple Crown races there were a rash of injuries which put the sport under some fire, being a less-than-casual fan found that reasonable, yet this film shows the beauty of the sport itself as few could. In essence it does something that The Black Stallion failed to do in that regard.

Much of the talk surrounding this film is centered around Diane Lane. She does do a wonderful job in this film and is convincing every step of the way and having heard the buzz as I was watching it I spotted what I think is her Oscar clip. While I think it might be superficially too similar a part for her to win, her nomination if it comes and is the only one may overshadow what is a much better film than The Blind Side.

A fact I was reminded of almost immediately as both films start with their protagonist speaking in voice over about the sport it is that obsesses them. I complained of the Bullock dialogue’s didacticism, there are no complaints about how Secretariat opens. It is a poetic opening which doesn’t teach the uninitiated about the Sport of Kings, that comes in due time when necessary.

It’s treatment of all the races is different in each case and appropriate. What is most crucial in sports films is the handling of in-game scenes because while there aren’t usually that many they are some of the most lasting ones there are. The Kentucky Derby gets it seems the longest and most complete uninterrupted start to finish coverage which eases the audience into it, and the stakes are very high as it is the first triple crown race that her investors need her to win. The Preakness meanwhile gets played all in one shot on a TV in the Colorado home while her family watches, it forms a wonderful completely visual bridge in the family. The kids are finally realizing what it is mom’s doing and its an unspoken apology between husband and wife.

The film’s supporting cast also buoys it tremendously. Most notably the horses team: John Malkovich as Lucien Loren the horses trainer, Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat and Margo Martindale as Miss Ham and Penny’s family: Dylan Walsh, Amanda Michalka, Carissa Capobianco, Sean Michael Cunningham and Jacob Rhodes.

Secretariat is a great sports film that the whole family can enjoy and is usually the case with the really good ones it is more about the people involved rather than the sport itself.

10/10

Review- Fast Five

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast Five (Universal)

As I first discussed in my review of Rio I bring quite a bit of baggage to any American-made film dealing with Brazil and I will be analyzing certain aspects that escape the notice of the common viewer. Obviously, some of these things also come into play when discussing Fast Five and I will attempt to address those as swiftly as possible and address the film as a whole.

However, with this particular film the Brazilian-ness of it and how accurately that is portrayed is a more pervasive concern as it touches many aspects of the film from dialogue, plot, believability, characters, plot points, acting and the like more so than in the aforementioned film.

Some examples: Firstly, I applaud this film for its attempt to be sneaky foreign (like Hanna) and actually include a bit of dialogue in Portuguese and even subtitling certain scenes. Most of the acting in the film as a whole is just fine, however, the noticeable sore spots are created by those portraying Brazilians who are clearly not. Joaquim de Almeida plays a drug kingpin and the mark of the major heist in this film, he does a fine job but as I suspected when I looked up the cast he’s Portuguese not Brazilian. Very noticeably a fish out of water is American Michael Irby as his second hand man. Spaniard Elsa Pataky and Israeli Elsa Godot are quite convincing, the latter not so much in one particular scene due to her look more so than her interpretation. The best Portuguese is spoken by Jordana Brewster who speaks it rarely and I wasn’t even sure she knew any despite being born in Brazil.

Issues with the story with regards to it being set in Brazil are most prevalent in two incidents that I take issue with. So far as having a druglord who has the Military Police in his pocket and corruption, I can take that. It’s an acknowledged issue that’s been long combated, however, if you want to see a film about the PM and how a good man can go bad and see a rather realistic rendition thereof watch Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite). The issues are the first scene where the American forces lead by Dwayne Johnson go up into a favela, in very cinamtically clichéd fashion all the runners and criminals brandish their guns like a territorial pissing then Johnson shows his gun and they all back away. The problem there is that that would either lead to a standoff or a firefight, which is not infrequent. It’s a movie device that really doesn’t apply here. There’s a more realistic scene where he’s baited out into the open and surrounded.

The worst scene of the film is the apparent defeat. Here for some reason the American forces decide they should drive, seemingly unnecessarily, through the elevated and undulating streets of a favela and it sets up a ridiculous confrontation.

There is enough action to carry this film along and make it a decent ride. The villain although broadly drawn does have some decent moments. The characters in the film are many so not many are developed in all that much detail but you do get a sense of them and there is a good amount of comedy mixed in which keeps things light in spite of the bickering minorities device that is employed twice.

To give this film its just desserts there is a hand-to-hand combat scene between Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel that trumps anything that occurred in The Expendables and no uncomfortable undertones to boot.

Despite being incredibly outlandish in terms of what the heist is, how it’s pulled off and what the reactions of law enforcement are to it at several stages of the film it’s still an enjoyable enough flick. It’s a decent popcorn flick that actually got me in the theatre by adding the heist element to a franchise that had never interested me before. Also, plan your health break carefully and stay through the end credits for a tag teases a sequel.

As a coda, bear in mind that with the financial success of Rio and Fast Five, Brazil will likely be the go to international transplant destination for franchises everywhere. I think James Bond needs a vacation, don’t you?

6/10